With disasters there’s only so much you can do. When an epically catastrophic event puts many lives at risk, the storyteller’s job is to show how humanity reacts: heroically or, as it were, zeroically. Five Days at Memorial (Apple TV+) revisits Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and specifically Memorial Medical Center. One benefit of waiting to tell the story is that the CGI boffins are on point in recreating the moment the levees broke. Archive footage does the rest.
As for inside the hospital, the narrative tends to move along generic tramlines. Regularly a character will spot something terrible unfolding behind the camera, which closes in as gawping terror spreads across their features. The opening episodes also contain insupportably high levels of syrup, along with industrial payloads of dramatic irony. “I don’t have a very good feeling about any of this,” said a hospital boss as the storm surged, a verbatim lift from Scooby-Doo.
Despite these formulaic tropes, the sense of chaos gradually intensifies. One of the things the script does best is to show the collapse of corporate systems and communication structures. A lone angel at an insurance company was thwarted by indifferent higher-ups. A fire crew hung around at base waiting for “somebody to figure out what to do with us”. A rescue chopper came in to land on a rusting rooftop helipad, not knowing that it was last used by the Pope in 1987. One fast-cut edit adeptly portrayed the way a Chinese whisper could race round a building like a virus before the truth had cleared its throat.
On such a teeming canvas, most characters feel sketched in. They’ve got a job to do and they do it. Standing out are Broadway star Cherry Jones as hospital boss Susan Mulderick, and Vera Farmiga as Dr Anna Pou who, as is hinted by the flash forward scenes, had to play God in the evacuation. For all the whiff of stylistic déjà-vu, Five Days at Memorial is a timely warning that, in our foreseeable future, infernos and floods are going to lose their once-a-century surprise element. This terrifying drama isn’t fiction. It’s science.